Infernal Comedy: How Stereotypes Stay Alive at BYU

Written by Jim Dalrymple on . Posted in Local

Wandering the information superhighway lately, I discovered this recent video made by BYU’s Divine Comedy called “Provo, UT Girls.”

I found the video on the excellent, Provo-centric blog CJane’s Guide to Provo, where the author aptly points out that BYU culture and Provo culture are two very different things. Though C Jane doesn’t put it this way, I basically understood her point to be that if BYU students want to look like imbeciles, they oughtn’t presume to represent the larger community. I agree.

(It’s probably worth mentioning here that I did smile as I watched the video. I’ve also had a bunch of friends in BYU’s Divine Comedy over the years, and without exception they’ve been smart, witty and very cool people.)

However, a larger issue with this video — and with other, similar BYU humor — is that it actually perpetuates and reinforces the disparaging stereotypes it aims to mock. Or, put another way, these ideas about BYU wouldn’t exist without organizations like Divine Comedy keeping them alive.

As per its name, the video describes Provo girls — or, more accurately, BYU girls — who go to college mostly to get married. They’re depicted as unafraid of commitment, wanting an “MRS” degree, willing to marry a tree as long as it went on a mission, etc. These girls even spend half the video in wedding dresses. Along the way the video also takes some pot shots at broader BYU culture by pointing out that there’s basically no diversity at the school, that Provo landmarks (the dollar movie, etc.) lack coolness, and so on.

If you went or go to BYU, you’re probably familiar with these ideas. And there is probably some truth to all this. Provo is a fairly small town, BYU really doesn’t have much ethnic diversity, and some people might go to BYU with visions of wedding bells dancing in their heads.

But apparently in an effort to keep their humor clean and tame, BYU students sequester themselves in a series of insular, negative stereotypes. I was genuinely surprised to hear things like “sweet spirit” — an antiquated and marginalizing label used almost exclusively for women — in the video. Hasn’t that phrase died yet? Like, in the ’80s when my parents were at BYU?

Apparently not, but the reason isn’t so much because people use it, it’s because Divine Comedy et al. ensures that it remains a part of the BYU vocabulary. If BYU groups weren’t constantly bringing this stuff up, it would probably change and become more dynamic as students cycle in and out of the school (sort of like the SFLC, or the “syphillis” building that used to be on campus and was the source of so much humor at one time). As it is ,however, this video is part of a larger, probably unintentional inculcation of students with idiotic ideas that have been floating around for a couple of generations.

And that has some negative consequences. Obviously — because the video sort of went viral — it means people outside of BYU come to see the school as being represented by strange things like “sweet spirits,” “MRS degrees,” and ignorant crackers. If people know one thing about BYU students after this video, it’ll be that they’re into… hasty marriages?

But more importantly, it turns every BYU student into an ambassador of weirdness. By constantly bringing up these tropes it ensures that every student has contact with them. Even if you never go to Divine Comedy, no one can walk through the Wilk without seeing some poster featuring a marriage gag. As a result, no matter what you do at BYU, these things will be part of your experience and these stereotypes become a recurring part of the culture.

Is that a bad thing? I think so. After all, do BYU women want to be known as marriage-obsessed crazies? Do they think of themselves that way? More broadly, is having a complete lack of ethnic diversity a good thing? Does BYU generally want to be thought of as strange, backward, out of touch, and un-urbane?

It must, because BYU students keep describing their school that way, in a mocking-but-sort-of-affectionate tone to boot. And though my experience suggests that few BYU students would actually describe themselves with the sorts of things in this video, by making and supporting this type of thing that’s basically what they’re doing.

Ultimately, every place in the world has strange idiosyncrasies which are often the source of humor to people living in those places. But in this case, the ideas represented in the “Provo, UT Girls” video are neither timely nor accurate. They’re artifacts from the past that would probably disappear if we just stopped using them. And in the end, as the de facto kings and queens of BYU humor, it really seems like Divine Comedy could come up with a new joke, because this one was worn out a long time ago.

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